erin ahnfeldt

Listening to Life

After the suicide, I couldn’t see the broken pieces in me, much less put them back together.  The fog of questions only darkened the path forward until–a month after Mason’s death–I sat on a seven-hour flight to Calgary.

My family and I circled up at our gate, and my daughter Hope prayed.

“Lord, please give us a safe flight and lead the conversations we have.”  I thought of her words as I found my seat.

The young man sitting next to me was maybe twenty and a little pale; his thin body looked cold under his hoodie.  He smiled in my direction as I buckled up, so I reached out my hand.

“My name’s Erin,” I said.

He shook my hand.


My heart stopped.

Are you kidding me? I thought.  I could still picture the other Mason I knew looking through brown locks of hair, sitting in my classroom.

“Were you on vacation?” I asked.

“No, a gaming tournament.”

“Seriously?” I said, leaning forward.  He told me he won his way to this big, international tournament, and that a sponsor paid all his expenses.

The flight attendant talked through safety instructions, and the conversation stopped.  We settled back into our chairs and felt the plane lift off the ground.  I glanced over at Mason, expecting to see air pods in his ears, but he was just staring straight ahead.

“How was the tournament?”  I asked.

“It sucked?” he said.  “And I probably partied more than I should’ve.”  He told me he lost badly and was beating himself up for it.

One of the flight attendants walked by, and he asked for a glass of wine.

“Why do you think people like gaming?”  I asked.

“Probably the high people get from winning,” he said, “but all the younger kids are better than me now; gaming is all they do.  I’m busy with other things, and. . .”  He paused for a minute.  Then, he pointed at the wine he just got.  “This drinking isn’t helping things.  I’m losing my edge.”

His vulnerability moved me.  And he continued to unload, telling me gaming isn’t fun anymore and that he feels like he disappointed his parents.

When I brought up God, he had no problem with it, mentioning his one “religious” friend he knew he could trust.

The flight attendant came by, and he asked for another glass of wine.

“Sorry, this is a bad habit,” he told me.  “I really want to stop.”

The whole conversation felt like it was scripted, like every piece of it had purpose.  And then finally I said what I knew God was nudging me to say all along.

“Mason, after all you’ve told me, I think this conversation is no accident.”

He nodded.

“I think God’s after you,” I said.

He was looking right at me, hanging on every word.  My heart beat fast, but I didn’t want to miss the moment.  We talked about the cross and Jesus knocking on his heart’s door.

“Do you want to open that door?” I asked.

He nodded yes, and then he said, “But first I want to get things right in my life.”

“Mason,” I said, “I don’t want to pressure you, but Jesus is like a life preserver.  He’s the one you grab when you’re drowning, not after you’re safely on shore.”

“I know,” he said, “but I need time to think.”

He took another sip of wine, and I left him alone.  My son and I watched a movie while he texted friends and drank a few more glasses of wine.

With an hour left in the flight, he went to the bathroom and was gone for a while.  His empty seat stirred something in me, and I wondered if I should tell him about my student’s suicide.

No, I thought, dismissing it.  That’ll seem like a scare tactic, and I kept watching the movie.  Mason returned to his seat, and the pilot announced we’d be on the ground in 20 minutes.

The thought came back.  I couldn’t shake it, so I blurted it out.

“Mason,” I said, turning to him.

He looked over.

“I’m a teacher, and last semester had a rough ending.”  He leaned in closer, and I continued.  “One of my students killed himself.”

“I’m so sorry,” Mason said.

“His name was Mason, too.”  I let that name sink in for a second.  “We had a good relationship.  I thought things were going in the right direction, but. . .”  Mason looked down at the floor as I spoke; what I was telling him was resonating.

“Mason, don’t let that be you.”

His eyes welled up with tears.

“God has much better plans for you,” I continued, “Don’t let your story end like my student’s did.”

Tears were now streaming down his face, so he leaned forward.

And in between sniffles, I heard him whisper, “Thank you.”

I patted him on the back, and a few minutes later, our paths went in completely different directions.

The words I spoke to the guy on the plane were words I never spoke to my student.   All of us have days we wish we could have back; one of mine was at school, that last day I saw my student Mason.  As I walked off the plane, I wondered, Maybe that conversation wasn’t just for the guy sitting next to me.  Maybe it was for me, too.

There’s a place in the Bible when Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” and Peter responds three times with “yes”.  The number three is significant.  It’s the same number of times Peter denied he knew Jesus a few nights before.  God could see the shame shrouding Peter’s heart.  He cared so much about it that He gave him another opportunity with Jesus, a chance to step out of his pain.

God saw my pain too.  He saw the questions, the what-ifs, and the darkness that seemed like it was winning.  But there’s something even better than being known by a God who sees; it’s being loved by a God who heals.  The Author of my story heard Hope’s prayer in the airport, saw my broken pieces, and sat me next to a young man with the same name as my student.  He did what I couldn’t do on my own.  Like the floor lights in a plane leading people to the exits, He was there lighting my way back to him, back to the healing He knew I needed.

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